I’m fist-pumping while running past the all-hardstyle Q-Dance Stage in a mad dash to make the tail end of Tinlicker’s set. One of the few English speakers I met on the press shuttle, a photographer from the United States, is supposed to take shots during the performance by the Dutch deep house duo. But we left the media hotel late, so by the time we arrived to Tomorrowland and made it past security, we only had 27 minutes before they finished.
“I’m not gonna make it,” she says in defeat as she looks out on the sea of people moving every which way. I switch to motivational speaker mode and assure her we will. I take out the thick, accordion-style festival guide gifted from the media coordinator back at hotel check-in. Frantically reaching towards the bottom of my Mary Poppins backpack, I find the guide and open it, turning from the timetable side over to the festival map side. This place is huge.
“Okay so they’re playing the Anjunabeats Takeover which is...Youphoria, stage 11!” I deduce, flipping over the guide once more while people struggle to walk around us. “The Q-Dance stage is here so... I think we need to go this way,” I point my head right, attempting to decipher the legend. She peers over my shoulder to confirm our location and proposed direction of travel. She agrees, apparently, because she resumes her run to the stage while I fumble folding the guide as I race to catch up.
Indeed, this is the general vibe at Tomorrowland, the esteemed Belgian event that is the world's largest dance music festival. This event celebrated its 15th year this past weekend in Boom, Belgium with an all-star lineup including The Chainsmokers, DJ Snake, Alison Wonderland, Martin Garrix, Black Coffee, Camelphat, Tiga, Maceo Plex, Afrojack, Kolsch, Zeds Dead, Eric Prydz and many, many more.
While most English speakers think the city's name is rave-influenced, Boom (said like 'bohm') is actually the Flemish word for "tree." The festival's roughly 200,000 attendees -- 10,000 of whom are staying onsite at the festival's campground Dreamville -- are able to dance comfortably on the lush grounds, where a network of small lakes (with fountains!) and many evergreen bohms serve as a picturesque backdrop for the three-day event.
Once onsite, we inch closer to the mainstage whose 2019 theme, Book of Wisdom: The Return, is an expansion of the famous 2012 design that featured a stack of books the size of a city skyline. From here, I see the green geometric patterns that mark the highest points of the mainstage. The techno devotee within me gets distracted remembering this current locale could easily put me at Carl Cox's Daybreak set -- and that afterward I could stay for Amelie Lens -- but I have to stay focused.
"Do you know where stage 11 is?!” I ask, short of breath after speed walking to the first Tomorrowland official I see. A puzzled look meets my question, and I remember the official's first language is likely Flemish. I repeat myself, this time slowly and with a finger pointed to the berry-hued psychedelic mushroom design of the 11th stage in my open map. She looks down and points to a picture of a wood bridge linking one side of the grounds to another. If we follow this bridge, it'll take us right to the Youphoria stage.
We start running again, weaving in and out of the early, but still packed crowd of dancers and performers and dodging branded trash bins placed to the sides of the wooden bridge. We make it with 21 minutes to spare.
Tomorrowland is not just a big deal simply within the confines of the massive festival site. Rather, it seems the entire country looks forward to the weekend -- so much so that organizers added a second one in 2017. Still, every year, hundreds of thousands of tickets sell out in minutes.
But arriving at Tomorrowland doesn't begin at the hallowed grounds of the De Schorre recreational park. The cover of the in-flight magazine on my flight is a picture of the 2018 mainstage with an interview with the organizers. Many of Brussels Airlines' festival-centric "party flights" have live DJ sets while in air. Meanwhile the Brussels airport is decorated with Tomorrowland cardboard cutouts that rep this year’s teal-and-golden-bronze color scheme. The festival’s motto -- live today, love tomorrow, unite forever -- flashes on LED screens as you exit the terminal.
In Boom, townspeople wave as hoards of bikes, cars, shuttles, and pedestrians infiltrate their otherwise quiet municipality, where the population hovers around 18,000 during every month besides July. Tomorrowland flags hang from the windows of modest Tudors and larger homes on highways and side streets. Older residents sit outside bars drinking Hoegaarden and chain-smoking while enjoying the neon spectacle. Local kids high-five as you walk the path towards the main entrance. It seems it's not just dance music lovers who have given their trust and respect to Tomorrowland, but the townspeople too.
Of course, the excitement intensifies once you walk through the gates alongside tens of thousands of fellow dance lovers from every continent except Antarctica. Once inside, there's something happening everywhere, with sounds from techno, to house, to hardstyle to bass to EDM to trance coming at your ears from all directions. The Tomorrowland logo is on every conceivable item, including but not limited to hats, t-shirts, fire cannon-lined lily pads, park benches and lampposts. Cooling misters woven into floral archways offer sensory balance against the brazen 83 degree heat.
Altogether, it’s quintessential sensory overload, and almost hard to know exactly what you’re experiencing at any given point in time. If you bulldoze through the event like I did when I first arrived, you miss the many details crafted into Tomorrowland.
Take, for instance, that wood bridge leading to the Youphoria stage. Here, there are countless messages carved into the structure: “Electronic Music is the sound of life,” “Believe in your dreams,” “Hermanos of Tomorrow." On a piece of lumber someone has etched, “To my children... I would use my last breath to tell you I love you."
Completed in 2015, this bridge was a festival project that offered ad space to anyone in the world who wanted to buy and design a personalized etching in the wood planks. With all proceeds donated to charity, the bridge and festival itself is cited on the official website for the United Nations as a symbol of the core values -- dignity, respect, diversity, and solidarity -- the UN strives to uphold. Tiny blink-and you-miss-em details like these carvings help create the Tomorrowland identity in the same way as the event's bigger, louder aspects.
“I think people continue coming back every year," observes an Irish woman I meet in the crowd on day one during the book opening ceremony, "because it gives them another chance to try and find all hidden secret gems and frickin' stages in this place."
The "pages" displayed during this ceremony are a gargantuan scale-up of the 150-page Book of Wisdom, a fictional story sent to ticket buyers based on the motifs of the festival such as fairies and dragonflies. It is a story that the Irish woman, named Sarah, herself worked on as a contractor for the event, and we tear up as she watches her words come to life in front of tens of thousands of people on a structure topping out at 433 feet -- 73 feet longer than a standard football field. (It took 100 crew members four weeks to build the mainstage alone.) Then, still teary, we laugh hysterically when DJ Diesel, a.k.a. Shaquille O'Neil, drops a Legend of Zelda remix in the middle of his genre-spanning set.
In many cultures, fifteen signifies the end of adolescence, when innocence is traded for a new level of respect and trust from your peers. The same can be said of the fifteenth edition of Tomorrowland. Fifteen years has seen tremendous growth for the festival sonically, physically and logistically. Over a thousand artists played this year. While some, like Armin Van Buuren, Coone, and Zany, played the very first and second editions of the festival, Tomorrowland has evolved far beyond its trance and hardstyle roots, this year welcoming international acts like J Balvin and Lil Kleine as the scope of the genre itself becomes broader.
And while nineteen kilometers of railing outline the perimeter of the festival grounds, this footprint doesn’t cover the entirety of the De Schorre site -- meaning that fifteen years into the world's largest dance music festival, there's still plenty of room to grow.